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Category Archive for 'China'

Although Jack Livings’s experiences in China were in the 1990s, when he was a student and then an English teacher, the life he lived there and the knowledge he gained from his conferences with students about their writing have stood him in good stead with this stunning and dramatic story collection. As he tells the Wall Street Journal, the title story, “The Dog,” is a story told to him by one of his students, a story he embellishes in his own writing here, about a weekend trip to the countryside taken by his student and her family. Also on the trip was her father’s cousin Zheng, a sleazy operator in the import/export business who “moved in dangerous circles” in the city and who brought with him a dog which he owned jointly with her father, one they had been using for gambling in illegal dog racing in Beijing. Because of a government crackdown, the men need to get rid of the dog; hence, the weekend trip to the countryside and a planned family barbecue. The bleak ironies and absurdities of this story and its surprising descriptions epitomize the author’s style as he creates seven additional stories of personal crisis from all parts of China, including some areas and cultures with which most of us in the West are unfamiliar.

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When Chinese author Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2012, controversy swirled. Mo is able to publish his works in China because he works within the existing communist system and is considered part of the establishment in China, while other talented Chinese writers are prohibited from publishing without serious censorship, and in some cases feel they must leave China in order to write from the heart. In this novel, Mo’s speaker is Tadpole, also known as Wan Zu or Xiaopao, who writes letters to his Japanese teacher, Sugitani Akihito, from 2002 to 2009. Sugitani has taught a writing class to Tadpole and others in Beijing, and on one occasion, Tadpole takes him to meet his Aunt Gugu, a woman who has worked as a rural obstetrician for more than fifty years. Gugu, a fearless woman who has seen and done it all – before, during and after China’s “one-child” policy – serves as a model for Sugitani’s writing class, and he suggests that the class write about her. One student decides to write a novel about Gugu’s life, and Tadpole decides to write a play. As he works on his writing project and reports to the sensei over the next few years, Tadpole recreates all aspects of Gugu’s personal and professional life, beginning in 1960 and continuing to the present. He vividly reconstructs several historical periods, from the famine of the late 1950s through the country’s efforts at population control, stressing the emotional effects of these policies, not just on the population but on medical personnel themselves. The immediacy and honesty of Tadpole’s writing to his teacher, and the powerful personality of Gugu herself combine to expand the issues of population control from the small community in Gaomi County, where they all live, to the population at large. The world “writ small” inevitably becomes the world “writ large.”

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Mai Jia, a popular novelist and winner of the Mao Dun Literature Prize, China’s highest literary honor, writes here under a pen name after serving for seventeen years as a member of the People’s Liberation Army and its intelligence services. Mai’s novel Decoded, originally written and published for a Chinese audience in 2002, and newly translated and published in English, provides a fascinating study of cryptography and its dedicated cryptographers, many of whom give their lives (and even their sanity) to their work. Astonishing in its focus on the travails and inner torments of one major character, Rong Jinzhen, the novel features a psychological, individualized approach, something I did not expect for characters living within the group culture of China, especially among characters from the army and its secret intelligence services. Though the novel cannot be considered a “psychological novel,” as we know it, the author does depict his main character, Rong Jinzhen, empathetically, as an individual within the state, giving him a real personality with which we can identify as he develops from childhood through early adulthood. A literary novel, unique in its focus, setting, and subject matter, Decoded lives up to its title, providing exciting new insights into many aspects of life in the People’s Republic of China.

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Qiu Xiaolong, formerly a resident of Shanghai and citizen of the People’s Republic of China, has lived some of the issues which face Inspector Chen Cao, head of the special case squad, Homicide Division in Shanghai, as he tries to solve a murder. Author Qiu, a scholar and lover of literature, was studying at Washington University in St. Louis, home of T. S. Eliot, doing research on Eliot’s life and work, when the dramatic uprising in Tiananmen Square took place in 1989. He was unable to return home. In Inspector Chen, he has created a kind of alterego, a poet who is also a policeman of impeccable honesty, a man who must walk the fine line between doing what the party believes is in the best interests of the country and what he sees as right in broader, less political terms. Death of a Red Heroine, an unusual mystery for a western audience, provides much information about how the political system in China “works,” while also creating situations in which the reader is as stymied as Chen about how to accomplish what he believes are the true goals of the country, as opposed to the personal goals of party officials.

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This strange and sometimes eerie collection of short stories by Nobel Prize winner Mo Yan is guaranteed to stick in the minds of its readers, not just because it is wonderfully written by a man whose country is not as open to foreigners as this book is, but because its reality is so far removed from what any of us have experienced or even imagined. Seven short stories and one novella create a sometimes mystical or mysterious mood, oftentimes more akin to horror than to fantasy, a mood that is guaranteed to make readers sit up and take notice, even as they may be lulled by the “folky” and confidential attitude of several speakers as they reflect on their lives. Whether one should interpret some of the events described in this collection as dark humor, shocking dramatic irony, or simply as the reality of the various Chinese speakers and, one presumes, the author, is a question which readers will have to explore on their own. Though author Amy Tan, in a blurb on the book’s cover, suggests that “Mo Yan’s voice will find its way into the heart of the American reader, just as Kundera and Garcia Marquez have,” I suspect that many readers will react as I did – my heart was, in fact, aching, often shocked, and sometimes appalled at what passes for normal life in rural China. The residual feeling of this collection, at least for me, is not that of folk tales or fantasy, in which one can smile, amused, at the flights of imagination, but of the sometimes terrible realities which underlie these stories.

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